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Sunday, September 14th 2014


Back to Luke: The Unjust Judge


I haven’t given a weather report in a while, so it’s about time for one. Here’s the overview: After a rather tepid summer last year, we had a bitter cold winter, and now, with this summer being over for all practical purposes, we can say that it has once again been a surprisingly cool one. There were a few days when it was really hot, but the temperatures around here have been far below average for the second summer in a row.

So, I can't stop my thoughts from wondering, Does this mean that there is no global warming after all? -- Not by itself. You can’t necessarily judge a global phenomenon on the basis of what’s going on in your particular niche of the world. Germany, for example, has been enjoying unusually hot summers. Presumably then, if I lived in Germany, I might believe that I have personal evidence for the unabated continuation of global warming, but, since I'm here in Indiana, personal experience could send me in the opposite direction. However, we can arbitrate between these different subjective perceptions by appealing to what the experts seem to be saying about the current state of affairs (i.e. not necessarily their predictions), and they appear largely to be in agreement that temperatures on the earth’s surface are not presently increasing. In other words, either there never was any significantly critical global warming, or — and this appears to be the common theory — we are presently in a pause of the ongoing process. Even ardent supporters of the hypothesis that the earth is continuing to heat up, and that this process has been caused by the irresponsibility of human beings, are conceding that the actual measurable warming of the surface temperature of the earth has taken a break.

There are numerous ex post facto explanations for this phenomenon. Keep in mind that, even though there has been some undeniable empirical evidence for global warming, such as the melting of the polar ice until recently, the real concern has been based on predictive theories, including the celebrated hockey stick graph. But, to the best of my knowledge, no one predicted this pause before it started in 2013 (a good example of a vaticinia ex eventu).  Thus, it seems to me that a number of meteorological scientists are on the horns of a dilemma. Either the present pause was predictable, in which case their theories were flawed because they did not predict it, or the present pause was unpredictable because it has been caused by unforeseeable natural occurrences. In that case natural climactic factors apparently are weightier than human causes after all, and, again, the theories were inadequate.

I’m not out to get anybody on this issue. It just seems to me that, given the political importance with which this issue has been endowed, it is significant that the originators of the predictive theories are now scrambling around trying to explain why we need to hold on to them when their predictive value has been shown to be somewhat deficient.

For what it’s worth, The Old Farmer’s Almanac is predicting another early and harsh winter for Indiana, followed by an unusually hot summer next year. I have no idea how reliable that source is. And I must remember: The weather in Indiana is not the same thing as the global climate.

Luke Bible Study Read the Text!

Bible Reading:
Luke 18:1-8

v. 1: He then told them a parable on the need for them to pray always and not become discouraged.

As we are finally returning to Luke, we are fortunate enough to have a parable that gives its own explanation. Jesus told us exactly what it was about, namely, that we should always pray and not get discouraged.

He then continued by telling the story of a widow who was not getting the justice that she deserved. Apparently she had the law on her side, but for some reason the judge was not granting her request. ---- Okay, so we can set up the following roles: the widow is the person who prays and the judge represents God. ---- No! No! It does not work that way. We’ve already stressed many times the difference between a parable and an allegory, and in this particular case it is especially wrongheaded to start to think of assigning specific roles to the figures in the parable. After all, the judge is pictured as a pretty nasty character. Laurence E. Porter says:

This is an excellent example of the rule of interpretation that the lesson of the parable must be sought in its main point, and not in its details, for a judge who ignores the two great commandments and neither fears God nor regards man can surely hardly teach us anything about the character of God. The point of the parable is an a fortiori argument; if an earthly judge, devoid of all sentiment of justice, yields to the importunity of the widow from sheer weariness, how much more will not God, who loves to hear His children’s prayers, delight to answer them when, as in this case, the cause is just. [New Testament Commentary, ed. by G. C. D. Howley (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1969), 240.]

For the sake of dramatization, it is certainly permissible to come up with some imaginary details, as long as you say that that’s what you’re doing. For example, it has been suggested that maybe the judge was expecting a bribe, but the widow had no means by which she could give him anything. Neither one of those points are mentioned in the parable, though they could possibly be true (insofar as "truth" applies to a fictional story). It is not unlikely that a widow would be without any means of support, but nothing is said about her poverty, nor even whether the case was about money. As far as the judge goes, it is not very probable that someone who did not care about God or other people in the manner indicated would have been tolerated in that position among the Jews of the day. If there was a person like him at all, it would more likely have been a gentile, perhaps a Roman, but it makes no difference; there need not have been a real life model for him at all. The widow kept calling on him, and he kept turning her down. She did not give up and came to him again and again, and he continued to ignore her. After a while he finally had enough, and, just in order to be rid of her annoying presence, he gave in and ruled in favor of her. So, even when he finally did what was right, he was still doing it out of a bad motive.

Jesus used this parable in order to illustrate that we should “always pray.” Leon Morris tried to establish an interesting contrast between this particular teaching on prayer and standard Jewish practice.

Jesus’ teaching goes beyond that of the Jews, who tended to limit the times of prayer lest they weary God. Three times a day (on the model of Deuteronomy 6:10) was accepted as the maximum.    [Morris, Luke. Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 287]

Morris’ reference is to the commentary by Strack and Billerbeck, which specializes in pointing out parallels between the books of the New Testament and various Jewish sources, particularly the Mishnah and Talmud. I found it on-line, but the file was too huge to navigate, and then I realized it was only the first volume anyway, which didn't even finish Matthew. In any event, there would be little reason to believe that in this parable Jesus was intentionally contrasting Jewish practice with the possibility of being allowed to pray more often. I don’t think that this parable has anything to do with how many times to say a formal prayer. It has to do with being constantly in fellowship with God and carrying on a conversation with God concerning all your needs and concerns as you go through your various activities throughout the day.

And, very specifically, Jesus was addressing the far more important topic of discouragement. He said that we should always pray and not get discouraged. Then he set up the contrast between this implausibly evil judge and God, our Father. The basic message is crystal clear. If an obnoxious human judge will give in to the widow just because he gets tired of her complaining, how much more will our heavenly father give us what we need since he loves us!

Without adding anything to the parable or its message we can, however, find a subtext in it. There would not have been any need for Jesus to tell this parable were it not for the fact that we do get discouraged. And I'm going out on a limb here a little bit and say that it appears that we have good reason to fall into that state at times. We can write off the judge in the parable as a really bad person who, for whatever reason, was not giving the widow what she was entitled to. Very well, but if God is so loving and generous, why does he seem to act so much like that judge at times? We struggle with unanswered prayers, and often we feel that our prayers are nothing but words that we say in order to make ourselves feel better while there doesn’t seem to be anyone listening, let alone responding.

Now it’s easy to blame ourselves, our attitude, our commitment, our devotion, our passion, and a lot of other things for the apparent isolation from God at times. And, it is not impossible that the reason for a particular dry spell in our lives lies with us and our deficiencies. For example, there may be times when our prayers seem to us to be nothing more than empty recitals of words because all we’re doing is reciting words.

As I was looking for the Jewish source on limiting prayer to three times a day so as not to bug God, I ran across  The Online Siddur with Commentary, sponsored by the Lubovitcher movement, a Hasidic group that makes strong use of the internet. It mentioned an episode in the life of Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidic Judaism:

One day, the Baal Shem Tov arrived at the door of a shul [synagogue] in a faraway town, and when he opened it he exclaimed: "This shul is filled with prayers and Torah study!" The disciples who accompanied him were most impressed—until he corrected them: "This shul is full of prayers and Torah study because over the years they were mouthed mechanically, without the wings of love and all that should have born them up and away…"

However, what we see in this passage in Luke is that there is yet a different reason why God is not responding in the way that we think he should, namely that his timing is different from ours. Verse 7 is a very peculiar and paradoxical one:

Will not God grant justice to His elect who cry out to Him day and night? Will He delay to help them?

What can we honestly say in answer to that question? Yes, on the one hand, we know that God is just, and that those who belong to him (“the elect”) will receive justice, which the present world and its circumstances are not giving us. And, apparently, the application has more to do with the God’s justice manifest in the world than with ourselves receiving individually what good things we may want. The second question, however, is somewhat strange. Will he delay to help them? Well, he seems to delay at times. In fact, v. 8 seems to indicate that the full justice of God will not be revealed until the second coming of Christ.

Personally, I really do not much care for the oft-repeated assertion that “God always answers prayers. He answers either ‘yes’ or ‘no’ or ‘wait’!” Still, the problem with clichés is that they usually have become trite due to constant repetition because there is some truth in them. What Jesus is telling us here is that we should be prepared for a long period of “wait!” God will bring swift justice. But he will do so when the time for it has arrived. The runners in the Olympic 100m dash are extremely fast, but that doesn’t mean that the 100m dash is the first thing on the program of the Olympics.

We can be sure that God will bring justice when the time for it has come. In the meantime, we must continue to pray and not be discouraged. Jesus was alerting us to this “meantime.”  We know of at least one reason for the delay that we may be experiencing. We read in second Peter 3:9,

The Lord does not delay His promise, as some understand delay, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish but all to come to repentance.

God is not a slackard or a procrastinator. His delay, if we may call it that, is not a sign of his unfaithfulness, but of his grace and mercy, so that those who do not yet know him have a chance to come to him.

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Friday, September 12th 2014


Docs Who Rock


Some not-very-well-connected musings written down last night, uploaded today (Friday).

Osama bin LadenIt's September 11 once again. It's been thirteen years already since the destruction of the twin towers. 18-year old freshmen entering college this year would have been five years old when it happened. -- I wish I could be more optimistic about how radical Islam will be contained in the future. Again, the U.S. is taking some actions to contain ISIS (ISIL), but nothing fundamental is going to change until the Islamic nations contain themselves and each other. Of course, what was true of Osama bin Laden is also true of the present Caliph Ibrahim. He sees himself as the ruler of a nation and does not see his nation confined by what we could consider to be national boundaries. He believes that he is "ruling" over an global empire that is not limited by international borders. Let me repeat what I've said before. Some people thought that George W. Bush went overboard when he said back then that the U.S. was in a war against the hostile forces that brought down the twin towers. After all, you can only declare war on another nation, and there was no specific nation responsible for that aggression. What those people either did not know or did not take seriously was that Osama, acting as the head of the new Islamic empire-in-the-making, had already declared war on the United States by 1994 along with the fatwah that all Americans should be killed. Please see my more extended discussion in Neighboring Faiths, 2nd ed. (IVP, 2012), 156-61 or the blog entry of May 5, 2011 that gives more details.


Anita and RoswitaThere's a game I like to play every once in a while. It consists of checking whether any of my blog pictures have been picked up by Google images. When one hasn't it's not a big deal, but it gets to be fun if I find one. Usually it's a picture in a fairly obscure category, so it doesn't have much competition. The imaginary drawing I made the other day of the twins Anita and Roswita is a good case in point. If you type in the names, they're in the top line. There aren't all that many pictures around with that title or theme, and, consequently, Google filled up the page with various other pictures that their robots found in the surrounding areas. Specifically, on the Google list that shows the picture of A & R, I discovered five other pictures located in the vicinity of that entry on my blog. My enhancement of the picture of "Caliph Ibrahim" is found among Google images as well, including the collection alongside A & R. Oh, and I have found the two girls by typing in "twin paradox" as well. 


Due to the subsequent circumstances, I never got to recount a number of items from our stay in Brown County in early August. There's one thing that I really do want to go back to and mention, although it's ancient history (about six weeks old) by now. The main town in Brown County is called Nashville, and so it has been only natural that Nashville, Indiana, would host a "Little Opry," in contrast to Nashville, Tennessee's "Grand Ole Opry." There used to be a Friday night performance by local talent and guests, lasting about three hours. Then on Saturday nights a well-known country artist would perform. For example, one year June and I went to see Loretta Lynn. Alas, the Little Opry burned to the ground a few years ago, and--even though there have been efforts to begin rebuilding and resuming the programs--so far there is nothing to show for it except for a pile of rubble and, I imagine, a similar pile of legal complexities.

Docs Who RockIn the meantime, there is a theater in town, called the Nashville Playhouse, which schedules performances of many different varieties, and June and I timed it just right to see a musical performance by the band "Docs Who Rock." If you google that expression you'll find it used for various groups and events in a similar vein as this one; in this case it refers to a band from Toledo, most of whose members are practicing physicians, whose spare time activity just happens to be making music from the 60s and 70s. Last year they had been a part of a program featuring various groups paying homage to Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young (hereafter CSNY or CSN), and they were such a big hit that the Playhouse asked them to return and present a full concert of their own.

By the time the program started, the house, which must hold about 300 or more people was pretty full, though not packed out. June and I found seats back to the side with a partitioning wall right behind us, so that I could stand up to take pictures whenever I wanted to. Or just plain to stand up.

Docs Who RockIn general, if you tell me that there's a band playing music from the 60s and 70s, I'm likely to think CCR, Paul Revere and the Raiders, or other fairly rocky groups--in other words, your typical garage band repertoire. Not that there wasn't plenty of different music around at the time, but unfortunately, one does not necessarily expect anything with more sophistication from a basically amateur band. The good thing about having low expectations is that you may wind up with some really nice surprises. Such was the case here.

The Docs Who Rock took the stage and began with several Motown numbers. The keyboard player was able to produce the correct sounds of horns and other instruments to create the necessary full and rich background. Of course, before the show began I had been wondering how good their bass player would be. I said to June jokingly that if he wasn't any good, I would have to go down on stage and help him out. Let me tell you: He was good, and I mean really good. A long, long time ago I had the opportunity to attend some Motown concerts, e.g., Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, and at the time I was fascinated (and intimidated) by the skill of their bass players. If this gentleman had any less ability, I certainly did not see it.

Docs Who RockSimilar things went for the entire group. They were just plain good. Now, I have to confess that somewhere inside of me the "artist" or "musician" is interrupting with a little voice to the effect that covering a song by sounding as much as possible as the original recording is not necessarily the height of creativity. But when a group has sound-alike imitations for its purpose, and they bring it off well, then all I can do is award them all the stars they deserve.

The first half ended when the lead singer, the gentleman with the white hair in the pictures, whose voice was as clear as a bell, left the stage and the lead guitarist, along with the rest of the band did a goose-bump raising rendition of "Piano Man." I don't know why that song affects so many people as it does, but somehow it appears to call up some deep feelings of nostalgia. The concert resumed after the break with only the front three men on stage, one of them holding a simple acoustic (though plugged in) guitar. They sang a couple of CSNY numbers (I don't remember which ones) catching every bit of the close harmonies of the original. Then the whole band came back on stage. I loved how, when they did a Beatles number they positioned themselves with two people using one mike, as John and George (or Paul and John) would have done on various songs. They also did a piece originally done by the Temptations, "Just My Imagination," which, again, requires a lot of close harmony, and they succeeded.

Billy Joel singing "Piano Man" in Tokyo in 2006.
The chorus that the audience is singing goes:
Sing us a song, you're the piano man; sing us a song tonight.
We're all in the mood for a meolody, and you got us feeling alright.

Finally they announced their closing number. The drummer started a regular low-toned cadence, the other instruments joined, and the lead singer began "Pretty Woman." But something was off. It's not always easy to figure out what was going wrong in such a case; it appeared to me that the bass player may have been in the wrong key, though I cannot be sure. Somehow they managed to make a mid-song correction and were able to finish, and I felt badly that their show ended a little bit off, though one goof certainly could not ruin an entire evening.

Anyway, the Docs Who Rocked received their well-earned acclamation, and I, for one, expected them now to go through the ritual of vacating the stage, only to return a few moments later for an encore. However, it was getting late, and the lead singer said that they would dispense with that formality; everybody knew anyway that they wanted them to do one more song. I anticipated what would come next. If they had made such an immense impression during last year's CSNY program, then there was one number that they absolutely had to do.

Sure enough, the guitar player once again went to his acoustic, playing the Steven Stills' guitar intro to "Suite Judy Blue Eyes."  As far as distributing the singing parts, the keyboard player took Stills' part, the guitarist Graham Nash, and the lead singer David Crosby.  It was as stunning and awesome, almost as though CSN themselves had been on stage. Obviously, the guitar riffs weren't quite up to Steven Stills' standards, but whose are?

Why did I go to such lengths in describing this event? Well, for one thing, you know that I never quite know what exactly is going to come out on one of my blog entries. I had intended to return to Luke, but the lateness of the hour demands that I postpone it. Music is a big part of my internal life, and I like writing about it--almost as much as playing it.

Below is a YouTube video of CSN performing Suite Judy Blue Eyes. It appears to me that Stills is playing with an open tuning; could that be true? Regardless, even though for some people playing with the guitar already tuned to a chord is a way of making it easier on themselves, that certainly wouldn't be the case for Steven Stills.

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Friday, September 5th 2014


Emergency Money and Hyperinflation

  • STATE OF EXISTENCE: Somewhat tired.

I wrote last night (Thursday): It's gotten later than I thought, but I promised on Facebook that I would reveal in a post tonight what an anonymous encourager had sent to June and me. However, I got so caught up in chasing down relevant material, trying to write this entry intelligibly, and taking on my scanner in a battle of wills that I eventually lost. So, here it is Friday evening, and I'm going to finish this piece shortly I hope.

1,000 Reichsmark dated 19101,000 Reichmarks 1910 back

Kaiser Wilhelm IIWould I ever have expected in my wildest dreams that someone would make me a present of 2,000 Marks?* Thanks to the anonymous encourager, it has now become a reality. Well, there's a little bit of a hitch. It's two thousand Reichsmark (RM), printed in 1910, four years before World War I. That means that, unfortunately, it's outdated and no longer spendable. During that time Germany was still a federation of kingdoms, principalities, and a few free cities like Hamburg, headed up by the William II, who was King of Prussia and German Emperor. The exchange value of RM1,000 would have been $238.10. I know that without looking it up on a chart, just by doing the arithmetic, because forever and ever, except for intervening times of crisis, $1 was worth 4.20 in RM and then later in DM (Deutsche Mark). That's what the rate was back in 1910, and that's what it was in the 1950s and early 60s when my aunt Helga, who had emigrated to the U.S., would send me a dollar for my birthday. I could take it to a bank and know that I would get four Marks and 20 Pfennige (pennies). Okay, obviously the rate did not last forever since the value of a dollar eventually started to decrease when President Nixon liberated it (explanation on request), and now the German Mark no longer even exists, having been replaced by the Euro. So the exchange rates bounce up and down. And, just to complete the picture, there are no more kings or emperors in Germany, except for "pretenders," a technical term used for out-of-office monarchs and other nobility.

German currency underwent severe pressure after World War I. Let me explain. There was a time in history when the value of a coin was determined by the amount of precious metal in its composition. So, theoretically, a silver dollar would be worth exactly one dollar's worth of silver, the German Mark would be worth one Mark's worth of gold, or whatever. In fact, the same denomination could have different values depending on the metal of its coinage. Someone might sell be willing to sell an item for $1.25 in silver or $1.00 in gold. When paper money became popular, the idea was that for each unit of paper currency, there was a sufficient amount of precious metal somewhere in the vaults of its country's treasury. Those days are long gone. What upholds a country's currency now is the viability of its economy and the health of its import/export relationships. I remember people complaining when the "cheap" quarters came out during President Johnson's tenure in office, but it really made no difference. Card board quarters would have been worth as much as metal ones.

Notgeld For a while, post World War I Germany had the opposite problem with regard to the value of its coins, which were still made of precious metals. Let us say hypothetically that in 1918, right after the war 1 RM was worth 1 RM in silver. However, inflation started to eat away at the value of the Reichsmark. Prices increased, wages increased to make up for the increased cost of living, the suppliers of goods raised their prices again so that they would not operate at a deficit, and so the Mark was increasingly losing its worth in spending power. One of the byproducts of this inflation was that the purchasing power of the Mark became less than the value of the silver of which it was made. It would now take, again using a hypothetical number, 1.20 RM to buy the silver that went into the coin itself; and similar inequalities applied to other coins. The value of their metal outstripped their value on the market. So, many people took advantage of this situation and started to save their coins, hoping that the metal value would continue to increase and that after a while they could trade coins they had acquired at face value for a larger amount due to the higher value of its metal.


The result was an actual shortage of coins. I might mention here that the situation was a little more serious than one might think because Germany and other European nations do not use paper money as much as we do in the U.S. As I remember, in Germany there were coins worth 1, 2, or 5 Marks, and (even though there were a few 5 Mark notes in circulation) bank notes made exclusively of paper would only begin at the 10 Mark level. So the widespread practice of hoarding of coins had a slightly negative impact on the economy of some regions. The solution in many places was to print more paper money, which was called Notgeld--"emergency money" (as illustrated by the three specimens sent me by the anonymous encourager). Any community could issue Notgeld; in many ways it functioned in a similar way to writing checks with a fixed value and an expiration date. This paper money was not backed by anything, it came in low denominations (e.g. 50 pennies), and did not keep its value beyond a specified time. If whoever had it last had not taken the money back to the bank by the set date, it would be worthless to its holder. But it was a superficially ingenious way to keep an economy going.  

Notgeld 75 PfennigThis is how my dad explained it to me a long time ago. The government supplies the bank with, let us say, a piece of paper that has the denomination of 1 Mark printed on it. The baker withdraws 1 Mark from his account and receives the paper. He owes the miller 1 Mark for flour and pays him with the same paper. The miller goes to the butcher and buys 1 Mark's worth of meat with it. The butcher owes the bank 1 Mark and takes it to the bank where he is credited with that amount. The bank returns the slip of paper to the government with a big "thank you," and the government says, "Here, I'll give you two new pieces of paper for the one you just turned in." And so, the economy moves on, supported by simple pretty pieces of paper. Notgeld functioned efficiently at first for a short time in limited areas.

The chits also became popular items for collectors, and communities earned a small profit by issuing pretty papers which people saved just for their aesthetic value. In contrast to the overhead cost and work that went into minting coins, it was easy to print more colorful little papers. 

However, there is a difference between writing checks and kiting checks, and the German system as a whole was pretty much doing the latter. On an internal cycle as I just mentioned, as long as the economy is working well, you can get away with making adjustments by releasing more or less money, but Germany's economy was in a shambles. Notgeld was only a very tiny factor in the disaster following in the wake of World War I; there were far more serious matters.

After the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II, the new Weimar Republic had to face the burden of paying reparations for the damage Germany had caused in World War I. The so-called Treaty of Versailles was only a treaty among the victorious nations; Germany and the other defeated countries were not allowed to participate in the negotiations. For Germany it was an ultimatum, favored particularly by France and Belgium and designed to make Germany suffer by paying large sums of money for the cost of the war as well as civilian damages. If Germany did not sign it within 14 days, the Allies would resume fighting. The representatives of other countries (e.g. John Foster Dulles negotiating for the U.S.) managed to scale down the demands to a certain extent, but Germany was still obliged to pay billions of Marks on a seemingly never-ending schedule. To get ahead of the story just a bit for a moment, the amounts were eventually lowered when it became obvious that Germany could no more make the expected payments than the other axis powers (e.g., Austria and Hungary) who had not been assessed any reparations for just that reason, and repayment schedules were eased somewhat. Then Hitler declared any war debt null and void. Moving ahead some more, long after World War II, the German Federal Republic did pay off the capital and interest on the lowered World War I debts. But, skipping some of the economic paradoxes involved (clarified on request), as we return to 1920 or so, no happy ending was in sight.

inflation commemoration medalI have brought together two items here that in conjunction with each other were sure to catalyze a catastrophe, namely 1) the shell game of maintaining an economy by printing worthless paper money and 2) the post-war reparations. The German economy was spinning in an increasingly dangerous cycle of inflation, which the government tried to stop by various ineffective means, while printing more and more money in larger and larger denominations. Now I ask you, if you were France or Belgium would you have accepted the money that Germany was supposed to pay you if it came in huge stacks of worthless paper money? I seriously doubt it. And so these two countries moved troops back into the industrial regions of Germany in order to divert raw materials and products directly into their own countries. Consequently, Germans had less to buy, prices continued to rise to keep production going, and the inflationary parabola became a straight vertical line.

Here are a few examples as proffered by the Wikipedia. "By November 1923, the American dollar was worth 4,210,500,000,000 German marks." In scientific notation, which I'm bringing up for later comparison purposes, that would be approximately 4.2x1012 Marks. The same article shows a picture of a coin with the inscription: "On November 1, 1923, 1 pound of bread cost 3 billion, 1 pound of meat: 36 billion, 1 glass of beer: 4 billion [Marks]." German uses the word Milliarde to refer to the English "billion." Below you see a page of what could be a meaningful stamp collection if I ever put any energy into it. The arrow points to a stamp somewhat obscured by its cancellation mark with the face value of 10 billion Marks. This hyperinflation was finally put to an end by currency manipulations that involved infusing substitute currency into the market, and I would try to explain it if I understood it better.

10 billion mark stamp

As a sidelight, let me mention that the exchange rate of 4.2x1012 Marks to 1 dollar was probably a record at the time, but that record has since been broken. In July of 1946 an American dollar would have gotten you 4.6x1029 Hungarian pengö. Now you know why I used scientific notation to express the numbers. Second place honors must probably go to Zimbabwe, though we have no idea how deep the Zimbabwe dollar might have plummeted given a chance. In 2009 the government simply ceased issuing Zimbabwean currency, and the money of various other countries, such as the U.S. dollar, is now considered to be legal tender there. The stimulus for the Zimbabwean disaster was the so-called  fast-track redistribution of farm land which drastically reduced agricultural productivity. The result has been massive food shortages in the country along with the total loss of a formerly thriving export business. Prices ran up faster than the government could print money.

To return to Europe, somehow Germans were surviving the economic hardships, partially thanks to a number of U.S. loan programs. Unfortunately, in 1929 America's own economy collapsed in the stockmarket crash. The ensuing great depression forced U.S. lenders to cancel various international programs in order to attempt to stay afloat, and Germany's economy went from bad to worse. That development, in turn, made it easier for the Nazi party to come to power.

Some superficial thoughts on these matters. On the one hand, one could say that it is unproductive for historians to engage in counterfactual speculation: "If it weren't for X, there would not have been Y." Often we really cannot know such a thing because, once we stipulate a different scenario, we have no idea what else might have been different. Nevertheless, it is precisely that type of reflection that keeps the study of history from being an indifferent recital of sequences of events. The historian's work is a meaningful undertaking when he starts searching for causes and effects, principles and their exemplifications, and the interrelatedness of cultures and politics, to mention just three areas. To do so, counterfactual thinking is essential. All that is to say that we cannot affirm with assurance that Germany would not have gone down the dark road it did if it hadn't been for the war reparations, but they were certainly a significant factor, both as an economic burden and as a propaganda tool that appealed to German nationalism.

And then, please consider this fact. In the aftermath of World War II the Western allies ultimately did not take the same course as they had at Versailles, but supported the U.S. approach geared toward healing rather than revenge. There has not been a war in free Western Europe for sixty-nine years so far and counting. The only conflicts, which certainly were bad, arose out of the break-up of Communist Yugoslavia, which (paradoxically?) brought up the same issue that was the immediate trigger for World War I, namely Serbian nationalism. John Foster Dulles, was instrumental in creating various defense pacts, such as NATO and SEATO to insure peace through strength and cooperation, and it has lasted, at times precariously, for quite a while now.

At this point I cannot draw too many further conclusions other than to sigh over world events in the present. If history is supposed to teach us not to repeat earlier mistakes, either she is a bad teacher or she has lazy students. Much of the rest of the world appears to have no perspective except to see their little oasis as the center of the world, let alone any understanding of the fact that putting another's interest ahead of your own will ultimately serve your own best interest as well. And that's where we'll leave it for now. Thanks again to the anonymous encourager for providing the stimulus to engage in these reflections.


*"Mark" should not be capitalized in English, just as we do not capitalize "dollar," "pound," or "shekel." However, it is too weird for me to see the German word for its one-time currency in lower case letters, so I'm going to break the rule and give it a big "M." In case you're not aware of this factoid, in German all nouns are capitalized; though adjectives derived from nouns, even proper names, are not. So, "Italy" translates into Italien, while "Italian" as an adjective such as "the Italian opera" (capitalized in English), is written with a lower case i--die italienische Oper. Then again, if one names the language, one uses a noun, and so it will be capitalized. "Italian" (the language) is Italienisch.


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Monday, September 1st 2014


The Grand Prix of Alexandria

  • STATE OF EXISTENCE: managing

Life is a lot like a go-kart race. “How so?” you ask. “I don't know,” I must respond. I just thought I should start this entry with something that sounded like a profound insight—so profound, in fact, that its meaning and significance eludes your otherwise insightful bloggist. Perhaps unconsciously I feel the need to cover up the possibly perceived shallowness of writing a blog entry on go-kart races (leaving aside for the moment the question of how one can feel anything without being conscious of it). Actually, as I'm thinking of it, we could turn this into a contest to see who can come up with the best conclusion to the statement:

Life is like a go-kart race because …

I will judge the entries on the basis of wit, wisdom, and literary merit. The winner will receive a prize, though I haven't had time yet to decide what it will be. Multiple submissions are permitted. Just keep them clean, please. You may use the comment feature on this blog or on Facebook.

Alexandria Grand Prix


As you may have noticed by the current paucity of postings, I've been schlepping around a bit in the last little while. The recent travel, culminating in the vigil with G'ma Anderson, has taken more out of me than I thought, I guess. Whatever resurgence of energy was meant to have come out of the retreat to Brown County was not allowed to last. Please don't get me wrong; the time in Michigan was worthwhile, but overall I'm just more sapped than I had hoped to be right now. The PD symptoms have increased at the moment, though they are still responding well to the Levo pills. But, one of the consequences is that e-mails that require lengthier answers, papers and articles that some of you have sent me to critique, and other such matters are  taking longer than I want them to. On several items, I got started, but then just couldn't maintain the momentum to keep going. Please be patient.


 And now for something you will really like. (Thanks to Jodie Schwirtz for keeping the Rocky and Bullwinkle snippet alive on YouTube.)


A while back I dropped hints about a mystery book that was coming out. It is now available. Mark S. Phillips has republished The Origin and Growth of Religion: Facts and Theories by Wilhelm Schmidt, translated by H. J. Rose. I refer to it multiple times in my In the Beginning God; the problem has been that only used copies have been available, and I don't think I've seen one advertised for under a hundred dollars on any site. I know I spent well over a hundred for my copy about ten years ago. The German original, Handbuch der Vergleichenden

Religionsgeschichte (Münster: Aschendorff, 1930), has been available for around 20 Euros, but the price of the out-of-print English translation has been prohibitive—until now. It's now listed on the Barnes and Noble's website, and will be available on Amazon and other internet book sellers near you soon. I assume it can also be purchased in book stores occupying physical space (if they order it).

Schmidt Origin and Growth of ReligionIf Wilhelm Schmidt is a new acquaintance to you, let me just mention that he, following up on the work of Andrew Lang (The Making of Religion, 1900), demonstrated that the original religion of human beings was not some primitive notion of spirits or magical forces, but the belief in one personal God to whom we are morally responsible. Other types of religions then emerged as people fell away from worshipping the one God. Wilhelm Schmidt's magnum opus was the twelve-volume Ursprung der Gottesidee. I doubt that it will ever be translated because of its size, and it will not become eligible for public domain for a long time since Schmidt did not die until 1956. He wrote the single-volume Origin and Growth as a handbook for those who needed something more compact for teaching and learning purposes. It is primarily a short history and critique of various theories on the origin of religion and an introduction to the culture-historical method as it contributes to confirming original monotheism. Among his other books in English are

1) Primitive Revelation (St. Louis: Herder, 1939). In contrast to Der Ursprung and Origin and Growth, Schmidt wrote this book from an apologetic point of view, arguing that his ethnological conclusions dovetail with Christian concepts. They do.

2) High Gods in America (Oxford: Clarendon, 1933). In small collection of lectures delivered at Oxford, Schmidt gives us a quick glimpse of how his method worked out in a particular situation, illustrating the original monotheism as it was visible in three Native American tribes.

3) The Culture Historical Method of Ethnology: The Scientific Approach to the Racial Question (New York: Fortuny's, 1939). The subtitle is misleading, at least as we might react to the term “racial question.” The book has nothing to do with analyzing so-called human races, let alone promoting the racial theories that were raging in Germany and other countries at the time. As a good Catholic Christian, Schmidt opposed Hitler's ideas. He was working in Vienna, and when Austria was annexed to the “Third Reich,” he moved, along with the Anthropos Institute that he had founded, to Switzerland. The phrase that comes to my mind in connection with this book is “dry as dust.” It explains the culture-historical method, as first set down in Methode der Ethnologie (Heidelberg: Carl Winter, 1911) by Fritz Graebner. Unfortunately, despite its rigor, Graebner's book was fairly difficult to follow at points. Still, out of respect for Graebner, Schmidt did not write his own work on methodology until Graebner had passed away. His version is far more extensive and detailed and also responds to some of the critics of the method. Alas! It still takes a huge amount of dedication to work through it. Your humble bloggist would suggest that, before setting out on reading this book, you avail yourself of his pithy summary and edifying examples, as provided in his In the Beginning God.


Finally, let us go back a week and return to the Grand Prix of Alexandria, which I'd been meaning to report about. This was the third year that Smalltown USA held this event, but the first time that I caught on what was actually going on just a couple of blocks from our house. The sanctioning body of this go-kart circuit had laid out a street course in the “downtown” area, and drivers in various classes were competing. On Saturday they held the heat races, and on Sunday the features. The youngest driver in the class designated as “Junior” was seven years old. In most of the other classes they were adults, and their souped-up machines no longer held too much resemblance to their origin as a seat mounted on four wheels powered by a lawn mower engine.

Herewith some pictures:

#21 winner pigtails

This young lady won the Junior division. She showed some
wonderful creativity on her helmet.

Mayor Jack Wood in Go-kartCookie Monster Helmet

First turnEntering Chicane

Collision in the chicane

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Saturday, August 23rd 2014


The Twin Paradox

  • IN THE BACKDROP: Earlier today: The Grand Prix of Alexandria

Umayyad Mosque on Prayer RugStarted on Thursday, finished text on Thursday, added pictures and posted on Saturday. Wouldn’t you know it? I got an e-mail from Abu Bakr yesterday. Well, not the historical Abu Bakr, the first caliph after Muhammad’s death. Not even the present claimant to the caliphate, who uses Abu Bakr as a part of his street name. It came from someone calling himself Abu Bakr who identified himself as a “rebel leader” in Aleppo, Syria--a strange self-designation. (If I may add a totally irrelevant piece of trivia, someone once gave me a prayer rug that was made in Aleppo.) This otherwise unknown Abu Bakr asserted that he and his second-in-command had absconded with 10 million dollars, which they had discovered in a house owned by Syrian president Basher al-Assad and had smuggled it out of the country with the help of the Red Cross. Really now.…You already know what comes next….Yes, that’s right. He’s supposedly looking for a trustworthy person in whose bank account he and his assistant can store the loot until the outcome of the war. For now, I should tell no one regardless of whether I take up the offer or not since doing so might hurt the rebel’s cause. Right. Its the infamous Nigerian bank transfer con with nothing more than a fresh set of labels. It just cracked me up that the day after I published my entry concerning ISIL and mentioned the two persons known as “Abu Bakr,” I should be getting an e-mail from some unimaginative con artist calling himself by that name.

It’s been storming off and on all day long. We had a power outage for a few hours from mid-morning until early afternoon. Right now, there’s a lot of thunder and lightning as well as cloudburst quantities of rain.

Physics LogoI mentioned the other day that it had been my 65th birthday, and, once again, I want to thank everyone for their congratulations and good wishes. Let me include in that statement also those of my friends, relatives, and acquaintances who meant to do so, but it somehow slipped their mind. That happens to me frequently.

Now, while we’ve brushed on the topic of aging, I should talk about a way in which you can seemingly extend your lifetime beyond your wildest imagination. In doing so, I can also finally bring the series on Christian thought and contemporary physics to an end. (Or, at least to try to do so.) I’m referring, of course, to the well known “twin paradox.” As I mentioned before, once I have all of the entries gathered, I will try to do a serious editing job to turn it all into a reasonably arranged whole.

Let me recall the points made earlier that are relevant to this topic.

a. Einstein’s special theory of relativity is concerned with observers within frames of reference moving at a constant velocity; viz., they are not accelerating in any manner. Please, if necessary, go back to re-read that section because this short summary is not really adequate. Let us say that two observers are moving at the same speed parallel to each other, and they measure their progress as well as that of their colleague. It turns out that each of them will observe that the other one traverses a greater distance in what appears to be the same amount of time; yet they do not pull away from each other. Thus, the velocity and distance are given, and so the only parameter that may have changed is time. Thus each of the two observers infers that the other person’s clock must be moving more slowly than his. After their excursions, when they get together and talk about their observations, they realize that both of them made the same measurements concerning the other.

We may not call this effect an illusion because there is no objective (“absolute”) vantage point to measure what “really” happened. But it is clear that the differences are limited to the data collected by the observers. From their own accounts, they both covered the same distance at the same velocity in the same amount of time. --- Let me add here, just to forestall an imaginary objection that bringing in God as the true point of reference makes no sense. God is neither a point in space nor a measuring tape nor a speedometer.

b. Things change when we switch over to the general theory of relativity. Now we are concerned with frames of reference that are undergoing “acceleration,” which is defined as a change in velocity. “Velocity,” in contrast to “speed” is a vector, which means it measures both the speed of an object and its direction. Thus, an entity can be accelerating in this technical sense by either slowing down, speeding up, or changing directions. An interesting application of this use of the term is that an object, even though it may be moving at a steady speed, can still be constantly accelerating. An example would be an object that travels in a circle; it changes its direction—and, thereby, its acceleration, from one moment to the next without increasing or decreasing its speed. For our purposes, the most important implication is that, in comparison with an inertial frame of reference, the clock of an accelerating object really does slow down. It is not just a matter of perception. When an object is accelerating for a significant duration, time on board moves more slowly than it would at rest or if it were moving at a steady velocity.

Actually, qualifications such as “significant duration” are unnecessary. The phenomena in question presumably occurs universally. However, their impact is negligible and can be disregarded. If I enter a freeway and push down hard on the gas pedal in order to match the speed of flowing traffic, I’m not accelerating fast enough that I need to reset my car’s clock, not even in the Detroit area. Now, please let me try the following summary, which is going to be fairly general. I welcome corrections, illustrations, or refinements. (I would include objections, but I don’t see what there is to object to other than to correct.) Gravity and acceleration are two ways of describing the same phenomenon. Acceleration is manifested by the fact that an object in motion pursues a curved path in the vicinity of other objects. If we define gravity in this operationalist manner, we can get away from two troublesome notions: 1) gravity as a mysterious force emanating from objects and capturing objects of lesser mass, and 2) space as a huge entity manifesting no properties other than being the container in which all other things reside and, more lately, being curved.

An object (call it “A”) moving in the vicinity of an object of greater mass (“B”) will curve in relation to B. If the difference in mass is great and A is moving at a slow speed, they may collide. E.g., the space station falls to earth, or the apple drops from the tree. Under some circumstances, B will assume a continuous curve around A, thereby creating an elliptical orbit, as exemplified by the moon traveling around the earth. In yet other circumstances, B will curve around A, but continue on its path with a slight difference in direction. The third case is illustrated by the curvature of the speed of light coming to us from a distant star, as observed by Sir Arthur Eddington and his colleagues during a solar eclipse, as we mentioned in an earlier entry.

Thus, we understand gravity in this context as the acceleration of an object’s velocity as observed by the curvature in its path. Once it was applied correctly and interpreted carefully, general relativity also explained the observation of an apparent anomaly in the orbit of the planet Mercury.

General relativity was an intellectual “discovery” made by Einstein. It took several years before it was confirmed in the sense that it predicted and explained certain empirical phenomena more satisfactorily than the previous Newtonian paradigm. However, one of the most entertaining methods of verifying this theory has been out of our reach so far, namely, the celebrated “twin paradox.” Unfortunately there is good reason to believe that it does not represent a genuine potential reality. But let’s play with it for a little while.

Kinderheim JuistFor some time, people believed that the twin paradox was entailed by the general theory of relativity. The label derives from the fact that twins could provide a very graphic illustration of the phenomenon, though it would apply to any people. Let me give two examples, both of them are fictional, but the second one, which does not involve twins, is more fictional than the first.

Let’s begin with twins. I think the first twins I ever met were two girls in a children’s home on the East Friesian Isle of Juist in the North Sea when I was around seven or eight years old. Their names, if I remember correctly, were Anita and Roswita, and if one of them is reading this, I hope you had a good life. Once you got to know them and got into sufficiently close proximity, you could easily tell them apart because one of them had a little scar right above the bridge of her nose--if you knew which one had the scar. But these detailed observations were not important to me at that tender age. Furthermore, they did not fit into my short-lived plans of becoming chief of a band of pirates. Come to think of it, none of those details are really all that relevant now, and I had better get back to my topic.

Twin ParadoxThe idea is that, say, Anita went on a trip into outer space while Roswita remained earthbound. Anita’s accelerated environment slowed down her clock, and so she did not age as fast as her sister. Let’s give ourselves an easy even number and assume that, when Anita returned home, she realized that she was twenty years younger than Roswita. Consequently, they were born in the same year (a reasonable assumption for twins in general, and a known fact in the specific case of these women), and theoretically, even with Anita’s excursion into outer space, they could live to be the same age. The situation is paradoxical because, despite being born at the same time and having the same life span they still would die separated by two decades. If we stipulate that they were both born in 1948 and that both will live to be a hundred years old, Roswita will die in 2048, while Anita will live until 2068 because she gained those twenty years during her time in space.

Here’s another example.

Imagine a crew of astronauts leaving earth in 1968 and traveling in space for 20 months. Their trip ends rather abruptly when they crash on a planet that appears to differ in many ways from their home planet. Its ruling forms of life are intelligent apes: gorillas, orangutans, and chimpanzees. There are human beings, but they are enslaved to the apes and live on a seriously underdeveloped level, culturally, physically, and mentally. I’ll stay away from the details of the story. As events proceed, Col. George Taylor, the only astronaut to have survived the ordeal, realizes that he has actually returned to earth, but the year is now 3978. Less than two years of travel measured on board the space ship covered more than two thousand years on earth. In the meantime, humanity had immolated itself by means of nuclear war, and the cultured, but cruel, apes have replaced them as the ascendant race on earth.

Planet of the ApesUndoubtedly you recognize the sketchy plot outline of the film "Planet of the Apes" (1968), starring Charlton Heston as Col. Taylor. The writers fudged the numbers for the amount of time elapsed, just as I did above, but they went even further. Quite unnecessarily they even provided the astronauts with one of those convenient and fortuitous wormholes, which enabled them to travel faster than the speed of light. Thus, don’t bother looking for an equation that would result in the temporal durations of the story. Nevertheless, one might think that by maintaining a little more plausibility in general, the idea of traveling into the (not-so-remote) future by means of accelerated space travel could be a real possibility. Or so it would appear.

Regardless of its benefit or lack thereof, it is only an appearance. Let me mention two reasons why the twin paradox has lost its popularity:

1. The twin paradox, even if it were a real possibility, would not extend any one’s life. In the film, Colonel Taylor did not actually extend his life span by some two thousand years. He lived exactly how long he lived as measured by his body and physiology; it just so happened that his life had two different segments in two different eras, and, staying with the plot, I imagine that he would have preferred to spend it all in the first one. In terms of practical application, even though the jump into the future would be real, he would not have experienced it in himself. When he returned to earth, he was exactly twenty months older than when he took off.

Similarly, if Anita should live to be a hundred-and-twenty years old rather than one hundred, her longevity would not be due to any hypothetical space flight on her part. That experience would not have given her twenty years’ worth more heartbeats, thoughts, meals, or enjoyable moments. According to the theory, the traveling twin’s experience would not be all that different from the one caused by the international dateline. In Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days, Phileas Fogg “gained one day” in order to win his wager, but only because moving east to west each degree of longitude shortens the time of sunlight by about 4 minutes, which is why we have time zones. On the average, if he crossed 360º in 80 days, he would have gained 4.5º longitude, which amounts to 18 minutes and thus shortened the entire trip by one whole day. But such a measurement does not translate into his having 18 minutes subtracted from his total age.  Nor would I think that he would have been conscious of it on a day-to-day basis, though his body clock should have noticed the accumulated time changes once his day had shifted by several hours, even if the shift had been gradual.

Going into the other direction, I can board a flight to Asia on a Sunday and arrive there on a Tuesday without having experienced more than a fraction of Monday. (Not a bad idea, perhaps.) However, that fact, which is necessary to maintain a meaningful calendar, does not entail that my life will be deprived by the length of a day.

2. Although there is discussion on the topic, today’s consensus holds that the twin paradox is not even a paradox. The general theory of relativity is in no different position concerning this particular theoretical puzzle than the special theory. It is now customarily placed under the heading of the special theory along with the explanation that the principle of equivalence still applies and that the general theory does not actually contribute any difference.

The reason is that any acceleration and its effects in the outward segment of the trip would be canceled out exactly by the equal and opposite acceleration on the way home (call it “deceleration” if you like). It does not matter how long or short the complete journey may be, whether it is entirely linear or contains curves, or even whether trip heads straight out and straight back or the route is laid out in a perfect circle that departs from the earth on a given day at a precise location and meets the earth again exactly a year later in the same location. You'll find quite a few wesites that do the relevant math. I particularly liked a delightful site called "Einsteinlight"; be sure to surf around the animations. If you do so or can follow the given calculations, you wind up with the conclusion that acceleration plays no significant role because it must take away again what it has given. Therefore, this scenario can be placed into the same rubric as other topics within the special theory, it is merely a matter of observations made from two frames of reference in which each sees the other one utilizing a slower clock. When they are together again, they have, indeed, expended an identical amount of time.

I'm just a little disappointed. My old physics book maintained that the twin paradox under general relativity would be a real phenomenon if it could ever be tested out in practice. What from I have seen now, the general opinion has shifted away from that idea. It would have been fun at least for limited time travel.

I’ll need one more installment for some final philosophical pronouncements and possibly for some theological reflections.

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Sunday, August 17th 2014


Locating ISIL on the map of Islam

  • STATE OF EXISTENCE: happy and tired


Sorting Out ISIL

So, it’s my birthday, and I’m looking at 65. How weird! Let me issue a preliminary "thank you" for all the wishes and congratulations that have poured in. Since both sons and their wives were unavoidably engaged in other matters, we’ll do some celebrating tomorrow (Monday) night. In the meantime, how better for me to celebrate my own birthday than by doing what I like to do best! Well, okay, one of the things I like to do best. I won’t play and sing for you, but I’ll try to teach on an important topic.

Most of the information in the first (and longer) part of this entry is discussed in greater detail in chapters 4 & 5 of the second edition of Neighboring Faiths, on my website Groups of Islam, and in various other postings. (E.g., use my internal Google search to find what I wrote concerning "Osama bin Laden.") For that matter, my site on Israel might also come in handy for some issues involved with Islam and the Middle East. On this post I just want to try to show where ISIL fits in with the various groups that claim to be true Muslims and carry out unspeakable actions in the name of this religion. So, please keep that restriction in mind. I’m not trying to give you a history or full description of ISIL. What I’m attempting to do is to locate the group within the ever-flowing chart of Islamic groups.

As the group in question developed, it went through various designations. At this point ISIL and ISIS are the terms of choice by outsiders. ISIS stands for Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, while the other acronym, ISIL means Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. The term “Levant" refers to the entire area east of the Mediterranean, including Lebanon, Israel, the West Bank, Syria, and Jordan, thus indicating a somewhat higher degree of ambition by the group. Nevertheless, in light of their intention, which is nothing short of global, the mention of a few countries in the label is hardly terribly relevant.

Please keep in mind that most complex enscripturated religions expect to be the only religion at the end of time; therefore, global ambitions per se should not be considered unusual or the mark of an invidious religion. However, there are important differences in the means of getting there. Spreading a faith by works of mercy, verbal proselytization, or the direct action of God is not the same as conquering the planet for your religion by physical warfare. If you’re familiar with my previous writings on the subject, you already know that, various protestations notwithstanding, some Islamic groups subscribe to the latter method.

Let me give you the big-picture outline on divisions within Islam. Much of the early material is a repeat of what I’ve written before, but we need to make sure that we have the right categories in place. At that, I cannot do much more here than follow one particular line of development. On the basis of the information I have read, it appears that ISIL does not entirely dovetail with any existing group, but combines elements of several previous ones. As always, we need to go back in history.

The biggest division within Islam is, of course, the split between Sunna and Shi’a, which began right after Muhammad’s death. Who, among those who had been his Companions (an honorific title as well as a descriptive noun) would lead the new community (al-ummah) established by the prophet? Muhammad’s son-in-law, Ali ben Talib, not only seemed to have the inside edge, but also claimed to have received Muhammad’s designation and his spiritual powers. Nevertheless, the consensus (Sunna) went with Abu Bakr, the father of Aïsha, Muhammad’s young and spirited wife. The rulers of the Islamic world became known as the “caliphs." Thus we have the have the majority, the Sunna, represented by Abu Bakr, and the “dividing party," the Shi’a, associated with Ali. The first three caliphs, Abu Bakr, Umar, and Uthman arose out of the Sunna. Ali finally became the fourth caliph, but by that time the division between Sunna and Shi’a was already unalterably headed towards mutual bloodshed.

Several matters complicated the disputes. One was the involvement of the aforementioned Aïsha, who held a strong antipathy to Uthman and even commanded a military action, the “Battle of the Camel," against Ali and his troops. She and her followers lost. Eventually she was escorted to Medina, where she spent the rest of her life teaching Muhammad’s message and writing down memories of her husband, which became a significant part of the traditions compiled as the hadith.

The other important factor had to do with the caliph’s tribal affiliation. Uthman came from a strong clan within the Quraish tribe, the Umayyads, while Muhammad hailed from its Hashimite segment. The Umayyads initially had been among the slowest groups to accept Muhammad’s teachings, but since they had been political leaders in Mecca before the change, it was not surprising that they would emerge again in the contest for leadership among early Muslims. I said above that Ali was accepted as the fourth caliph, but his appointment was rather controversial. Uthman had belonged to the Umayyad clan, and after his death a clan leader named Muawiyah claimed that the right to the caliphate belonged exclusively to the Umayyads. Ali and Muawiyah each commanded armies against each other, and I must refer you to the above sources for more details.

So the big question was, "Should the caliphate belong to someone who was highly regarded in a particular tribe or to a descendant of the prophet?" A third group, called the Kharijites (“Dissenters") emerged with the message that neither criterion was true to Islam. They observed that it had hardly been a bare thirty years after Muhammad’s death, and already the people had lost their way. The truest and purest of all Muslims should be the one chosen to be caliph, even if he had been nothing more than a slave boy. Descent or social standing should have nothing to do with the selection. The fact that such poor criteria were being used to designate the caliph, appeared to the Kharijites to be a clear indication of apostasy.

The Kharijites asserted that the present generation of supposed Muslims had already fallen back into the ignorance and darkness of the time before Muhammad (the jahiliyyah). If so, these lapsed Muslims were considered to be worse than unbelievers and potentially subject to execution. It’s important to recognize that the Kharijites did not think of themselves as either Sunni or Shi’ite.

As a distinct group the Kharijites did not last very long, but neo-Kharijite movements have popped up again and again during the history of Islam. In the meantime, the Shi’a went its own way, splitting up into further subgroups from time to time. Their largest contingent, called "Imamites" or "Twelvers," has constituted the majority population of both Iran and Iraq, though the area that we now call Iraq has been governed by Sunnis for almost all its time under Islam (the Umayyad dynasty followed by the Abbasids, the Selkuk Turks, the Ottoman Turks, the Hashimites, and the B’ath party of Saddam Hussein).

Even though the Sunna did not fractionalize as much as the Shi’a, naturally there were differences of opinion. A movement towards greater intellectual inquiry inspired by converts from Greek-inspired cultures, the Mu’tazilites, was suppressed by the more conservative followers of Abū al-Hasan al-Ash'arī (874–936), referred to as Ash'arites. The Sunna recognizes four schools of legal interpretation (Shari’a): the Hanifites, Shafi'ites, Malikites, and Hanbalites. The last-mentioned, founded by Ahmad bin Hanbal (780-855), is the strictest of the four, attempting to stay as close to a literal reading of the Qur’an as possible and adjudicating possible ambiguities by using as much as possible only hadiths that go back to the Companions of Muhammad.

Further developments within Islam went into the direction of mysticism (i.e. Sufism), as well as adaptations to folk religion and superstitions. One response to these alleged deviations came from Muhammad ibn Abd al Wahhab (1703-1792), who initiated a significant reform movement in what is now known as Saudi Arabia. When Arabia came under Saudi rule in the early twentieth century, “Wahhabism" became mandatory, and anyone who did not comply with its teachings was liable to be executed. It is a rather rigid form of Islam, forbidding anything that could be interpreted as idolatry (shirk), such as the veneration of Muslim saints or their gravesites, not even making an exception for the burial site of Muhammad in Medina.

Although Wahhabite Islam does not tolerate other religions very well in the lands where it has been adopted, it has its primary reason for existence within Islam itself as a movement towards the purification of the religion. In addition to Saudi Arabia, the two other countries in which it has made its home are the United Arab Emirate and Afghanistan, where the Taliban forced Wahhabite interpretations of the Qur’an on the people for a time (and would like to do so again). But there is no caliphate in Wahhabism. The kings of Saudi Arabia claim to have a divine mandate to rule, but they do not refer to themselves as caliphs.

One of the crucial tenets of Wahhabism is that no Muslim should follow human teachers in their beliefs and practices. Consequently, they do not care for the label “Wahhabite" and prefer to be called Salafis, which means that they follow the pattern set by Islam under the first three Caliphs. Even though it is pretty clear to the outside observer that they fall into the Hanbalite and Ash’arite patterns, they reject both designations because those labels are connected to human leaders. However, the term “Salafi" may create some ambiguity as well, and we need to return to it.

Even though Osama bin Laden (1957-2011), the eventual leader of al-Qaeda, grew up in Saudi Arabia under Wahhabite teaching, he eventually turned into a different, far more radical direction, inspired by the writings of Seyyid Qutb (1906-1966). Qutbism and its philosophical allies deny the legitimacy of any human government (including a caliphate) and look for a totally Islamic world, which will be governed by Shari’a alone. According to them, not only non-Islamic countries, but all Muslim countries that are governed by human beings (and they all are without exception) are in the state of jahiliyyah (darkness and ignorance). The Saudi government is not only included in that judgment, but was singled out by Osama over and over again as a case in point of such apostasy.

Seyyid QutbOnce again, I urge my readers to read the book Milestones by Seyyid Qutb. I mean, I’m happy if you take my word for the summary, but Qutb’s ideas have an even greater impact if you read them in his own words from his own pen (though admittedly most likely in translation).

The Qur’an teaches that Islam should not be propagated by the sword (Sura 2:256). People should be able to come to a free decision of the truth. Consequently, many Muslim apologists today go to extraordinary lengths to explain away the various aggressive wars fought by Muslims ever since its birth. For our purposes right now, this issue is irrelevant because al-Qaeda and other followers of Seyyid Qutb not only acknowledge that there have been Muslim wars of aggression, but advocate that they must be resumed.

Qutbites agree that one should only become a Muslim by free choice when one recognizes the truth, but declare that people today do not have true freedom to make such a choice since they are “enslaved" to human governments. Thus, the primary item of their present agenda is to abolish governments, both those of non-Muslims and of the multitude of pseudo-Muslims who live within the recrudescence of jahiliyyah. In order to make a truly free choice concerning Islam, people need to live in a truly Islamic environment.

Let me repeat a point that I’ve made several times in various places in order to illustrate this idea. It has been stated multiple times that al-Qaeda’s attack on the twin towers on 9/11/2001 was irrational because it not only killed non-Muslims, but Muslims as well. This particular inconsistency vanishes under the Qutbite paradigm because any Muslim working in the twin towers would surely be in the state of jahiliyyah, and, thus, be subject to destruction just as much as any other infidel. Anyone who is not a Muslim in accord with these principles is a hypocrite, and the Qur’an destines hypocrites to a worse fate than unbelievers. Sura 4:145: “The Hypocrites will be in the lowest depths of the Fire: no helper will you find for them; -“

And now to ISIL. As announced I will not give a history of this organization (except in the sketchiest terms), nor go into all of their present machinations in detail. In my opinion, the Wikipedia site grants a stronger link between this group and Wahhabism than is warranted, but does an adequate job of providing more information than I need to go into here.

ISIL is not Wahhabi, though there are many similarities. It promotes a “pure" kind of Islam. It identifies itself as Salafi and stresses the importance of tawhid, the oneness of God and the worship of him alone. Any practice that could be deemed to be shirk (idolatry) must be eliminated. But none of these matters require any link to Wahhabism other than a conceptual one. However, by considering itself a government in and of itself and by engaging in aggressive warfare in order to expand its boundaries, killing Muslims as well as non-Muslims, it goes beyond Wahhabi ideology. And, for that matter, so does the genocide of non-Muslims, which includes women and children and some of the worst tortures invented by monsters disguised as humans.

Nor is ISIL Qutbite. The movement did arise out of al-Qaeda with its underlying Qutbite ideology, and it definitely shares Qutbite radicalism in designating all other Muslims to be in a state of jahiliyyah and, thus, making them legitimate targets of aggressive war. Its particular emphasis in that respect has been on fighting against what they are calling “Shi'ite oppression." This notion would be laughable if it were not accompanied by such inhumane violence and brutality. It is true that since the American involvement in Iraqi politics the Shi’ites have had a greater amount of authority in Iraq than in most of Iraq’s history. However, Shi’ites do represent a majority of Iraq’s population, and, as I stated above, they have lived almost perpetually under Sunni governments. ISIL considers itself as neither Sunni nor Shi’ite, just as was the case for the Kharijites in the seventh century, but their main victims within Islam are the Shi’ites. Outside of Islam, it appears that any one else is fair game for persecution.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Caliph IbrahimMost significantly, in contrast to both Wahhabism and Qutbism, ISIL has resurrected the position of caliph. Thus, at this moment, they occupy a unique slot. Once again consulting history, after the initial skirmishes, the Umayyad dynasty held the caliphate until it was replaced by the Abbasids in 750. The only territory to which the Umayyads held on was Iberia, and they continued to designate their leaders as caliphs. Thus there was the truly powerful Caliph of Baghdad and the vestigial Caliph of Cordoba. The Abbasids eventually lost power, and in the eleventh century, the strongest caliphate was held by the Shi’ite Fatimid dynasty in Egypt. Thus, there were now three caliphs, the Caliphs of Baghdad and Cordoba—both of them dysfunctional—and the Caliph of Cairo. After the Ottoman Empire had consolidated the Muslim world under its rule, the Sultan also bore the title of “Caliph." The revolution by the “young Turks" in 1922 (that’s where the term originated) ended that practice, and, after several failed attempts to sustain the position in some way both inside and outside of Turkey, since 1924 there has no longer been a caliph.

ISIL has now attempted to revive the caliphate. Its present leader goes by several names and titles, and I will only touch on a few highlights. Born as Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim Ali al-Badri al-Samarrai, he is the Emir (“prince" or “ruler") of ISIL. His popular name has been Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and you will immediately recognize the importance of “Abu Bakr" in that construction. Lately he has added “al Qurashi" to his title, implying descent from the prophet, who, you remember, was of the Quraish tribe. The shortest version with which one can refer to him is “Caliph Ibrahim."

ISIL displays all of the worst traits associated with the stereotypes of Islam, and in a world where it seems to be impolite to call an evil person "evil," surely this organization and its leader deserve that appellation. The U.S. has taken the lead in attempting to put an end to the travesties of ISIL. I’m not fond of the idea of the U.S. being the policeman of the world, but such a horror cannot be allowed to go on unimpeded. Some European countries have now joined the American effort, and the new Iraqi government is attempting to put an end to ISIL. Perhaps together they will succeed. Also, other Muslim countries have denounced ISIL.

And that last remark once again brings me to a rhetorical question that I have repeated several times. Why are the so-called moderate Muslim nations not playing a more active part of the war against ISIL? For Muslims to sit on their hands while they make frowny faces and verbally dissociate themselves from ISIL is simply not enough. If Islamic countries want to be taken seriously by the outside world, they need to earn that respect by neutralizing those groups that clearly violate the standards of Islam.

Perhaps Western-style democracy is not yet appropriate for some countries where tribalism is too deeply ingrained; simply imposing it seems to backfire in many cases, though I wish it weren’t so. But even an absolute ruler can and should abide by the Qur’an if he is a true Muslim. “There should be no compulsion in religion" (2:256). “People of the Book" (e.g., Christians and Jews) must pay the unbeliever’s tax (jizya) and occupy a lower standing in society than Muslims, but they should be allowed to live and worship God in their own way (9:29). (And, please, there is no way in which one can plausibly rationalize, let alone justify, Caliph Ibrahim’s and ISIL’s actions as a consequence of the Crusades. Unfortunately, if you’ve had conversations with Muslim apologists, you might not be surprised if someone at this very moment is attempting to do just that. )

Muslim leaders, if you want us to see any credibility in your claims concerning Islam, please join actively in the effort to put ISIL out of business!

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Wednesday, August 13th 2014


Keeping Vigil in a Hospital Room

  • IN THE BACKDROP: A CD with instrumental hymn arrangements

Monday, 8-11: Beryl J. AndersonI’m going to start a blog entry; we’ll see how far I actually get with it. June and I are in the greater Detroit area of Michigan, which immediately raises the question of what “greater" means when applied to Detroit and surroundings. But I digress already, and this is only the beginning of the post.

June’s mom, known as “G’ma" even to people who weren’t related to her, had a stroke last week. By Thursday morning it became clear that she would not recover, and so we drove up to be at her bedside and to support Kris insofar as it has been possible. One of their brothers also lives in this area; the other two flew in from out-of-state, but had to return after the weekend. Things are going slower than expected. We’re planning to be here for the duration. Kris continues to bear the greatest burden, but hopefully we’re making some contribution.

Spending the day in a hospital visitor’s chair is obviously a little wearying, but it’s not been boring. This has been the first time in many years that all five of the siblings (June, Kris, Greg, Barry, Jonathan, and Kris) have been together. The nurses on the station have expressed a bit of surprise; they are used to arguments and fights breaking out when so many family members (and in our case additionally 2 spouses and even one ex-spouse) are all together in one hospital room, but the Lord has provided harmony and mutual support. There was some good honest sharing and a lot of reminiscing. If I may put my tongue in mouth for a moment, in the meantime, G’ma is as stubborn in dying as she was in living. Finally she is actually sleeping, and—even though she is not particularly communicative any more—conveys a spirit of peace.

When I said above that the Lord provided harmony, I can add that we attempted to do so as well. G’ma always loved music; she was a member of a professional trio for a time. In the opinion of your ever-humble bloggist, she always appreciated my musical effort. I have my guitar along on this trip, and we spent much of yesterday (Sunday) afternoon singing hymns and folk standards of the 60s. The nurses insisted the music was beautiful (and I’m sure it clearly was), they also allowed that is was neither too loud nor disrupting (how could it have been?). In any event, we had a joyous time. We have no idea how much of it G’ma heard or appreciated, but the little signs we saw, or at least pretended to see, seemed to indicate that she responded positively to it.

June and I never even unpacked from our trip to Brown County in southern Indiana. We came home on Wednesday, June washed one load of clothes, stuffed a few other fresh items into our duffel bags, and took off for Michigan on Thursday. We stayed in a motel up until today, but, since it’s taking longer than we had budgeted, we’re relocating to Kris and Tom’s tonight.

Old Shatterhand One would think that this time away from other distractions would provide a good opportunity for me to try to get caught up on various projects that only require a computer. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. Even though it’s not like anything specific is hammering away at me, still the whole situation per se does not lend itself to producing concentrated thought that’s worth a whole lot.


I did say in the last entry that in the next one you would get to see a picture of your equestrian bloggist on horseback. This happens to be that entry, and, even though Brown County is far from the top of my mind at the moment, I will fulfill the promise. Here I am sitting on top of “Whiskey," whose job apparently is to be bring up the back of the row of riders, and both times I got to share the job with him. He is a very well-tempered and responsive horse. I think the two people in charge may have overestimated my riding experience, but I like to think that I didn’t disappoint them in terms of skill. I have to clarify that I needed help getting up into the saddle due to a little inflexibility thanks to the PD, but, once up in the saddle, I felt totally comfortable and—forgive me for mentioning the obvious—suddenly transformed into Old Shatterhand. June thought horseback riding was very good for me and thinks I should look for more opportunities to. Excellent idea.

As I reflected on the horseback riding, I realized that the last time I had ridden any kind of animal was probably when I was on a camel during a visit to Jerusalem. That ride was not nearly as comfortable, and I shall not provide any picture.

Trail Guide in Brown CountyI’ll leave this entry at that. In the near future, when my brain is more inclined to consider other matters, I intend to provide some commentary on events in the Middle East, but that shall have to way.

For now, I need to be done. Please continue to pray for us and, more particularly for Kris and Tom. A couple of hours ago Kris ran into some seriously aggravating bureaucratic issues, and there are so only so many straws that a woman can bear.

Tuesday, 8-12: No dramatic changes. June and I transferred to Tom and Kris's house. I have felt pretty crummy for the last day and a half, though obviously seeing G'ma provides immediate perspective. Just added the pictures to this entry.

Wednesday, 8-13: Still maintaining the vigil. G'ma is proceeding to the heavenly city, but at her own pace. I shall finally post this entry.

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Tuesday, August 5th 2014


Venn Diagrams

  • STATE OF EXISTENCE: having fun

Just a couple of days left here in southern Indiana.

This will be a "mostly pictures" entry with a few personal comments--and maybe something profound on the off-chance that anything will come to mind. I knew from the beginning that I wouldn't be able to keep from working on some project, so I'm remaking the pictures of the presentation on Kisa Gotami that I gave at ISCA in April and was going to turn into a video. I lost all of that material when my computer crashed in May.

On second thought, forget all that, I got too carried away by the topic of Venn diagrams, so I'll save the pictures for some other entry. As I keep saying, even I don't always know what winds up getting posted on this rather mercurial blog before I'm done.

I see on Google's homepage that today is John Venn's 180th birthday, and I feel driven to make a quick comment in connection with that fact. John Venn (1834–1923) was the creator of what we all know as "Venn Diagrams." Google has a pretty nifty display, and I don't want to take the fun out of it. However, it gives me a chance to address a common mistake, which Google's diagram also appears to include. Specifically, it represents Venn diagrams from an "existential" point of view, viz., it makes the assumption that the items represented by both circles exist and that, consequently, there are items to be found in the area where the two circles overlap. In Google's amusing examples, they all do, and that's just fine. But from the standpoint of modern logic, that's an unwarranted assumption because, after all, logic does not so much describe reality as seek to reduce it to the purest possible set of symbols.

Well, those were probably two of the more obtuse sentences that you'll read all week, so let me clarify.

The idea of representing classes or categories (modern "sets") with circles is pretty intuitive. One of the ten (or fewer) greatest mathematicians of history, Leonhard Euler (1708–1783), formalized a method for doing so, though you wouldn't think that it would take a genius to come up with this approach. It's rather simple, though you can make it do far more complex tricks than I will in the following example.

Take a sentence such as

1) All owls are carnivores.

In the traditional syllogism, this sentence is classified as an A sentence, after the Latin affirmo ("I affirm"). It is a universal ("all") affirmative ("are") proposition, and I will limit myself to those tonight. You can illustrate the sentence by first of all drawing a circle in which all carnivores in the universe reside. You imagine that lions, leopards, sharks, and anything or anyone else that eats meat lives there.

Then you can add another circle inside of the carnivore circle, which is the dwelling place of all owls.

So, the obvious conclusion is illustrated: Here are all of the carnivores, and there are all owls contained within the set of carnivores. We can call these circles "Euler diagrams." By simple inference we know that there are no owls that are not in both the owl circle and in the carnivore circle.

This diagram falls into line with the way in which universal sentences were understood until the nineteenth century. The assumption was implicitly made that carnivores and owls exist. So, sentence 1) could be transformed into

2) There are owls, and they are all carnivores.

In other words, this A sentences can be dissolved into a conjunction of two statements asserting existence.

Now, there are philosophers who contend that the syllogism and its universal sentences, such as the above, should still be understood in this way. We can discuss that question another time. It's an interesting issue that involves Aristotelian realism, but we'll leave it to the side tonight. For my purposes here, all I'm interested in is to clarify the change in logical relationships that arose in the 19th century, and how John Venn's diagrams fit into that innovation.

One of the leading mathematicians and logicians of the nineteenth century was Augustus DeMorgan (1806-1871). He came up with numerous insights, among which his "theorem" (viz. "DeMorgan's Law") is only one of his smaller achievements. (See the bottom of this post.) Also among his contributions is his different way of looking at universal sentences. Let's go back to our first sentence:

1) All owls are carnivores.

We said that traditionally it was understood to imply that owls and carnivores exist and that the former is a subset of the latter. But what if the sentence is

1') All who leap tall buildings in single bounds are superheroes.

Well, we don't know whether there are any people with that kind of jumping ability, and we also don't know whether there are any real superheroes. (I mean, I'm pretty sure there aren't, which makes this example even weirder, so just go along with me.) Perhaps these are only imaginary beings. DeMorgan's innovation with regard to universal propositions was to interpret them as hypothetical statements. So, rather than transforming sentence 1) into sentence 2):

2) There are owls and they are all carnivores,

we should read it as:

2') If there are owls, then they are carnivores.

Now, we all know that Venn diagrams are not about circles-within-circles, but rather about intersections of circles. So, let's begin this time by drawing a circle that contains all owls. For Venn diagrams the order in which you draw your circles is irrelevant.

Then we add a second circle of the same size, which holds all carnivores.

The two circles have an area of overlap, which could house any possible owls that are carnivores. To make the diagram strictly accurate, we should enclose it in a rectangle. In the area outside of the circle you will find all entities that are neither owls nor carnivores, such as a bicycle tire, a gold finch, or the sound of one hand clapping.

The important question is, of course, how we should indicate our A sentence, "All owls are carnivores," on the diagram. The temptation is to highlight the area of intersection and say that it is here that all owls live. The larger part of the owl-circle is empty. That judgment may be correct, but it is based on the assumption that there are owls. DeMorgan's innovation keeps us from having to make that assumption, and logicians like to make as few assumptions as possible. To be true, the universal statement in the traditional interpretation is conditional on there being owls.

Of course, in the case of owls, if we step out of the logician's pristine environment, we know that some owls really do exist. So, we can we can confidently back off from a universal A sentence, write a more modest particular I sentence, and diagram it in this way

3) Some owls are carnivores.

However, universal statements are touchy, as we said. John Venn's contribution with his diagrams was that he devised a way of accommodating DeMorgan's perspective. He argued that, instead of stating that all owls are in the intersection area, it is better to go with DeMorgan's hypothetical point of view and say that, if there are owls, then we know at least this much: They will not be in the area that represents owls which are not carnivores. So, we should not mark what only hypothetically exists in the overlap, but we should shade out the area that shows what categorically does not exist. There are no owls that are not carnivores.

You may not find the distinction terribly significant, but it became crucial for the ongoing progress in logical analysis. And, thus, if for no other reason than historical accuracy, it is important to maintain the distinction between Venn diagrams and Euler circles.


In case you're interested, DeMorgan's theorem states the equivalence between certain negations of conjunctions ("both-and") and disjunctions ("either-or").

Either I will not drink coffee or I will not sleep.

~D v ~S

is equivalent to:

It is not the case that I will both drink coffee and sleep.

~(D & S)

It also works the other way around.

I am not a centaur and I am not a griffin.

     ~C & ~G

is equivalent to:

It is not the case that I am either a centaur or a griffin.

~(C v G)

What I would consider to be one of DeMorgan's "big" contributions is the formalization of the method of mathematical induction. Let me try to summarize it.

If a specific integer a has a certain property, and it is the case that: if a hypothetical integer n has that property then its successor n+1 will also have that property, then any integer x has the property in question.

There is a counterpart to mathematical induction in logic, but I'll wait until you got this one to tell you about that one. 

Pictures of your bloggist on horseback next time!

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Thursday, July 31st 2014


The Historic Christian Faith, Conclusion


Racoon at Bird FeederGreetings from southern Indiana! Actually, June and I had wanted to take a much further trip, but things happened, and so we decided that we were better off trying to get some actual relaxation, and so here we are here at one of our favorite escapes in the part of Indiana that actually has hills, or, if you want to be more accurate, big holes so that the surrounding landscape looks like hills.

We’re having a good time, but I have decided to swear off fishing for the near future. The man with Parkinson’s should simply not try to thread his own hook. After puncturing my hands to the point that they looked like stigmata, getting entangled in miles and miles of fishing line, and eventually sliding down a muddy bank into a muddy creek, I decided that, at this point, the fishing life is not for me. It never really has been, except for one weekend each year, quite a while back, when Seth and I would go camping and fishing, and then we did have a lot of fun with it. So, I just thought it would be an interesting thing to revive, and so it was, I guess, but “interesting" is not synonymous with “fun."

By the way, whatever happened to good old fishing reels? It used to be that they were big spools of fishing line with an attached crank, and that was all there was to them, pretty much. You would attach a weight, hook, and bait to the accessible end of the line, and cast it. If it looked like your cast was going too far, you would stop it by putting your thumb on the reel. Then you set your crank and waited for some unfortunate cat fish to get caught trying to snack on your worm as it was exploring the nether regions of the ooze. You’d crank your line back in, unhook the surprised fish, and send it off swimming again, no doubt to tell its family about the crazy afternoon it had. Nowadays it seems that all the reels are high-tech pieces of equipment, and I discovered a multitude of things I could do with them—except to get off a decent cast and reel it back in.

As mentioned, the attempt to revive the relaxed pastime of fishing ended with a descent down a muddy embankment into an equally muddy creek. Sadly, my cell phone was along for the plunge, and it was not amused. For the moment it is resting inside of a bag of rice, based on the suggestion that several of you have made previously for similar occasions. We’ll hope that it works. In the meantime please know that for the moment my cell phone will not constitute a successful instrument to communicate with me.


racoonEven though this is supposed to be “time away," I can’t help ruminate on philosophical and theological matters, and I think that I want to bring the series on “the historic Christian faith" to a close — at least for now. As always, I’ll stay with it if there are good questions on the topic. This entry is going to be another fairly large stack, having to do with the doctrine of biblical inerrancy and the nature of the Chicago Statement.

I have made the point that Protestants, in considering the traditions of the church and the statements issued by councils, accept them as potentially very helpful ways of coming to terms with doctrines based on the Bible, but they do not consider them to be of equal authority with the Bible. On the other hand, this approach doesn’t entail that they are merely suggestions that can be ignored at a whim if one should be so inclined because, as I have stated, they are unparalleled ways of structuring the doctrines in question. Not to consider them is not an indication of freedom, let alone creativity, but an indication of ignorance or sloth.

Of course, once an organization has established certain creeds or doctrines as requirements for membership, they are binding for those who want to be a part of it. Else, there would probably be not much of a point in having the organization. This assertion is not theological in nature; it just has to do with one’s commitment and with one’s sincerity in honoring the commitments one has made to a certain group. So, for example, if I were to join a Reformed Church, and their requirement would include accepting the Heidelberg Confession and the Canons of Dort, then I should subscribe to them, and if I didn’t, I should neither join up, or, if I changed my mind later, remain I should not remain within the group. (I was going to ask rhetorically whether any group would ever pass a declaration that pronounced, “On the whole, we’re not sure about this"? But, come to think of it, the fifth article of the Remonstrance reads that way, which has no bearing, of course, on its truth or falsehood). These considerations apply to both Church and para-Church organizations. Church groups are under a little bit more pressure because, after all, most of them contend that they represent true biblical Christianity. Para-church organizations, even though an arm of the church, have more freedom to establish their statements of faith because they will be geared to fit their calling (and perhaps the comfort of participating individuals).

Which brings us to ICBI, ETS, and ISCA. The International Council on Biblical Inerrancy (ICBI) was formed by a group of theologians and pastors in order to restore to prominence what they perceived to be the proper understanding of the nature of the Bible. Please understand here, that the word “council" in this context refers to a relatively small group of self-selected evangelical leaders, such as J.I. Packer, Norman L. Geisler, Gleason Archer, James Boyce, etc., and that they agreed that after accomplishing what they were trying to do, they would dissolve themselves—as they did. As a rookie, so to speak, I was not on the council, but I was there for the first two “summits" as participant and signatory.) The group was not ecumenical, and it did not intend to be so. From the beginning, it had a very specific agenda, namely, to promote a clear understanding of the inspiration of the Bible and its entailment of inerrancy.

One of the things that they did in order to further that end was to hold larger “summit" meetings that would come up with a lengthy statement expounding on the doctrine. It was not intended to be a large-scale forum for debate where fundamentalists, evangelicals, neo-orthodox, modernists, and so forth would get together and hammer out their differences in order to arrive at a nothing-burger statement, which would be mutually acceptable to all of them. The intent right from the beginning was to defend the view that was held by people who had a commitment to biblical inerrancy and to deny positions that were incompatible with it. Of course, there is (and should be) an ongoing dialogue with other Christian traditions, but this was not one of them. The official statement was intended to say, “Okay, we represent this view of the Bible and biblical inerrancy, which we believe is the correct one; this is what we mean by it." In the future evangelical Christians could then consult this document stating what this group of evangelicals leaders, both scholars and pastors, defined as the best understanding of “biblical inerrancy." It could not be binding on any person or any organization except by choice.

CardinalAt the first summit in 1978, the council invited a larger number of representatives from the evangelical community who would be in sympathy with their goals. Your bloggist had the privilege of being present at this, the first of three “summits." I was still definitely feeling like a rookie, probably because I was, as I was mingling among these evangelical leaders (“those who seemed to be ‘pillars,’"). This larger group had no more ecclesiastical authority than the small core; it cannot even be defined as a “Council" in the same sense as Nicaea or Chalcedon, and the ICBI statement made that point right from the beginning. Leaders of some denominations were present, but their attendance and later implementations in their denominations, if any, was up to them and their churches. We spent several days listening to different people address various aspects of the topic of inerrancy and working on refining it. At the outset of the meeting, a prepared statement was circulated, to which everyone, in large and small groups, could make comments and suggest changes. (By the way, this is the method that other large groups also have used, for example Vatican II or the World’s Parliament of Religions; what comes out in the end is often very different from the original draft.)

The result was the celebrated “Chicago Statement," though I, for one, had no idea at how “celebrated" it would eventually become; viz. I wasn’t sure how many people would actually pay any attention to it. Having been present at the meeting, I can vouch for the fact that we did not see ourselves as bishops or prelates but as evangelicals who were working together on an important matter. I remember somebody remarking somewhere along the line, perhaps in an elevator, that if the folks who put together the Westminster Confession were called the “Westminster Divines," we should be called the “Chicago Divines." But that was meant as a joke. We were serious, but not sanctimonious. I suspect that the folks at Vatican II, despite the necessary glorious self-references in the documents, felt the same way.

Obviously, the statements should not and cannot be interpreted as de fide, nor would the council even have dreamed of coming up with anathemas. How could a consultation of this sort, which was not a church, anathematize anyone? The statements of denial are simply statements of “that’s not what we mean." They were indictments of ideas as false in the light of our conviction of truth. In fact, we stressed in the discussions, as well as made a point in the document, that people who did not accept the statement were not, ipso facto, non-Christians. Unsurprisingly, there was a lot of negative feedback from those who did not share our understanding on Scripture because a) they were not consulted; and b) they did not get to write the rules, c) the standards were published even though they disagreed with them, and d) they didn't like anything evangelicals did.

The council was very much aware of the potential gap between believing that what the Bible says as true and trustworthy and understanding its content. Thus, a few years after the first large meeting, they held Summit II (1982), which specifically dealt with hermeneutics, the theory of how to understand a text, or, more specifically in this case, the text of the Bible. Once again, papers were read, debated, and discussed. At times the conversation got just a little heated. The outcome was another statement, again including affirmations and denials, on the consensus that could be established on hermeneutics among those who subscribed to biblical inerrancy. Once again, your bloggist had the privilege of being there, presenting a paper, and participating in the discussion. Seriously, I am pleased that I was invited and was allowed to be a part of something that turned out to be far more significant than I had imagined at the time.

Fast-forward to the twenty years or so, to the time when the Evangelical Theological Society was debating the topic of “open theism." The society had only two points of doctrine in their statement of faith, namely, a commitment to the inerrancy of the 66 books of the biblical canon and a statement affirming the Trinity. For a while, already prior to the discussion on open theism (the belief that God has chosen not to know the future), some people had raised questioned how exactly inerrancy should be interpreted. Others told me that they felt free to sign the statement affirming inerrancy while giving themselves quite a bit of latitude in how they understood the term. I remember a brief discussion with a seminary teacher who quipped that, well, he was signing the statement every year, but he was pretty sure that what he meant by “inerrancy" was most likely not what most other members of the society meant by the term. Most everyone around the table chuckled at this juvenile “school-boy-defies-headmaster" attitude. It was not a good moment for me to bring up the topic of personal integrity, let alone the not-so-revolutionary idea that, rightly interpreted, the Bible is, in fact, true in all that it affirms. I doubt that this professor allowed his students to cheat on his exams, but he was cheating them.

Now, I like to think that maybe I may have had a teensy-weensy little part in what ensued. The context of the discussion at ETS in the early 2000’s was the debate on “open theism." The main question came down to whether two members who held to the view of “open theism" could remain a part of the society. Underneath that matter was a theological issue, namely, whether open theism, according to which God does not know the future, is compatible with biblical inerrancy. One of the difficulties is that one cannot reconcile a God who is less than omniscient with predictive prophecies, those that have already been fulfilled and those that are still outstanding.

During that debate, one of the gentlemen whose membership was in question declared that the idea of biblical inerrancy was so ambiguous or vague that it really could not provide a solid standard against which we could measure the correctness of what he was teaching and writing. His own statement to that effect was followed up by other people chiming in that they, too, were really confused about the meaning of biblical inerrancy. I availed myself of the opportunity of making a speech of no longer than five minutes (though I’m sure I did not even take that long), which I concluded by asking: “If you’re not clear on the meaning of ’inerrancy,’ what in the world are you signing every year?" There was a little bit of giggling and just a smattering of applause, which the president of the society immediately gaveled down. Bill Craig, who was sitting right next to me, grinned as he complimented me on my “little rhetorical flourish," though I'm pretty sure I didn't change his mind on the larger subject.

So, since the meaning of inerrancy had been raised within ETS, it received official action. I’m don't know precisely what the ensuing process was because right about then I stopped attending ETS for various unrelated reasons. I do know this: the society responded to the criticism that the idea of “inerrancy" was too vague, and that it needed to spell out in more rigorous terms exactly what should be entailed by it. And so it did. The society voted that the operative more precise understanding was the Chicago Statement. Thus, theoretically, the alleged ambiguity should have been resolved. (I believe, though, that a number of people who had claimed to be befuddled by the term a few years ago are now complaining that it is too restricted and narrow, and that, consequently, it is legitimate for them to circumvent it.)

Nobody (to my knowledge) is making any claim that the Chicago Statement has been divinely revealed, that it is inspired, that it bears intrinsic authority, or anything else that one may associate with creedal statements in some churches. Nevertheless, it did become the official reference point for the Evangelical Theological Society, who as I said, is not a church nor claims to be an arbiter over the Church. Now, I must add, lest I create a wrong impression, that I don’t think that the Chicago Statement was totally arbitrary or just an opinion, or that anybody else’s formulation would be just as good as that one. Just as with the Nicaean and Chalcedonian creeds did with their topics (though on a different scale), I think that it expressed the meaning of biblical inerrancy in a very solid and rigorous way, one which can easily withstand the opposition to inerrancy by self-appointed judges who believe that it is wrong for a group to establish membership criteria that excludes them.

Now, most of the foregoing was, as I said, yet another stack. So, let’s pop back to where we’re supposed to be and remember that our main issue here is neither the question of inerrancy per se nor the question of any one particular person’s stand on the issue of biblical authority. My point is the nature of the Chicago Statement, and how it is useable for the church in general. It is an affirmation that anyone who takes the inspiration of the Bible seriously should take into account. After all, if you don’t believe in the full truth of the Bible, on which our doctrines are supposed to be based, how can you justify your particular doctrines — unless you resort once again to tradition and a magisterium? As to the societies that have adopted the Chicago Statement as a part of their statement of faith, they have not added another authoritative creed alongside the Bible, but have committed themselves to an interpretation that suits their identity. For Protestants, creeds are only as authoritative as we allow them to be, and the same thing applies to the Chicago Statement.

Thus, there is absolutely no inconsistency, let alone contradiction, in a Christian organization such as ISCA (International Society of Apoogetics) making reference to the creeds in clarifying its doctrinal basis. It is not thereby violating its avowed beliefs concerning the value of external traditions and authorities.


The sum of the entire lengthy exposition, along with its numerous side trips, is this. I have tried to describe the way in which Roman Catholicism has attempted to hold to their version of the historic Christian faith in light of the fact that there have been so many changes and additions over the two millennia. Their view of the historic Christian faith can be understood as a seed planted in the Bible and subsequently-- under the leadership of infallible human authorities--grown into a new and unforeseen shape by means accumulating historical creeds, traditions, encyclicals, and so forth. 

From the evangelical perspective, the historic Christian faith is delimited by the content of the Bible. Insofar as it is possible, the evangelical theologian will build up a biblically-based theology. If she is well-informed, she will use the creeds and other doctrinal statements as they are applicable, helpful, and biblical, but not on a par with Scripture.

Let me move towards a close with one particular biblical passage.

And what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, commit to faithful men who will be able to teach others also. (2 Timothy 2:2 HCSB)

Paul talks about a “deposit" that he has handed on (the origin of the word "tradition") to Timothy, and he tells Timothy to guard it and to pass it on to others, who will also teach other people. Catholic interpreters see in this verse the establishment of the line of authoritative extra-biblical tradition. But this cannot be. First of all, at that time, though most of the books of the canon had already been written or were being written, the canon had not been assembled yet, and so oral tradition was still all there was for almost everyone. There can be no extra-biblical tradition where there is no biblical tradition yet. The whole purpose of the New Testament canon was to collect precisely those writings that contained the teachings of the apostles, the "deposit."

Also, in his writings Paul has provided us in various places the perimeter of the gospel that he preached and taught (e.g., Galatians 1:6-10; 1 Corinthians 2:2), and there is no room left for additional doctrines reserved for any elite insiders. There can be no “Mahayana Christianity." The evangelical view is that this deposit has not changed since the time of Paul. It is the timeless gospel of Jesus Christ, which we learn about through sincere and informed study of the Bible. To put it bluntly, someone who was supposed to guard the deposit slipped up on the job. Further doctrines were added, embellishing practices were multiplied, and dubious beliefs became mandatory even though it is entirely impossible to connect them to the historic Christian faith that goes all the way back to the New Testament. As I said in the last entry, there can be little point in denying that these things happened. Two good indicators of that fact are a) the very obviously inconsistent doctrinal compromises of Vatican II, and b) the need for a theory such as Cardinal Newman’s, that would establish a non-rational way to explain how a body of belief can be mutated without being actually changed, and how those mutations validate its authenticity.

So, please, my Roman Catholic Christian friends, we can discuss theological issues and debate them. For the exploration of specific items of doctrine I recommend the course that Dr. Norm Geisler will teach at SES this fall. At your seminaries, please raise yourself out of the murky relativism that has been besetting Catholic theology for the last several decades (with Pope Clement a too-short exception) and go further in your argumentation than over-generalized declaration.  May I ask you, please, to teach that what Protestants believe to be the historic Christian faith is wrong and in the process closely examine the reasons for your position on the basis of a solid historical-grammatical approach to the Bible? Give us some content to talk about. At our seminaries, we are going to continue teach that what Catholics believe to be the historic Christian faith is wrong, and hopefully we are informed on the topic. In any event, pitching little mud packets at each other is neither scholarly nor helpful. Please keep in mind that the mud you may think you are aiming at only one or two persons may splatter on others as well, and it will undoubtedly leave its marks on your hands.


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Thursday, July 24th 2014


The Historic Christian Faith, Part 5


I am aware of the fact that I'm repeating a lot of things that I've said within the collection of the previous series "How to do Theology." Hopefully I'm using sufficiently different words to keep it interesting. Then again, you may not have looked at that series. I have expressed the fundamental theological method by means of a pyramid that, in pure theory, represents the process of creating a theology and applying it.


Theological Pyramid


Let us take another look at the “Cultural Filter” that I have placed in between “Biblical Theology” and “Systematic Theology.” No matter how biblically grounded I may be in my views, I have no choice but to express biblical content in the language and context of my own culture, and my personal subjective background is going to play a role as well. I’m tempted to say that can’t be helped, but that would be a little silly because, were I able to express the biblical message in the precise terms of biblical culture, no one would be able to understand what I was saying in my present circumstances.

Thus, as a Protestant theologian, I seek to state biblical doctrine in the best terms provided by my culture. I try to retain the content as accurately as possible while framing it as carefully as I can into today’s context. Doing so faithfully will first of all require my openness to what the text of the Bible states. Along the line of Schleiermacher’s hermeneutical circle, I will come to the text with my preconceptions. I allow the text to correct my understanding on whatever teaching it contains. Then, the next time I read the same text, I will come to it with improved understanding, but may find more in the text that will improve my comprehension of it further.

Hermeneutical CircleDoes the hermeneutical circle work? To put it a little better, is its description of the interaction between a reader and a text accurate? I should think so. I imagine that the very act of your reading this post is a good example of the hermeneutical circle in action. You came to this entry with certain preconceptions, and I don’t mean that in a negative way. The fact is that, to a certain extent, you can never be sure what my subject of any given blog entry may be, and I like it that way. As I have mentioned from time to time, there have been occasions when I intended to write on one thing, but then got caught up in something else in the course of writing, and the new subject became the focal point for that entry. Still, given that I’ve been pursuing this topic for a little while now, that I’m using the same title, and that, perhaps you have some familiarity of my perspective by now, you may have a fairly good idea in general what you’re going to read. Obviously, you won’t know the specifics, but you’ll know that it’ll be about Catholic and Protestant theology at a minimum, and that I won’t discuss the effects of restrictor plates on stock car racing. And then, as you read this entry, you’ll try to figure out what I’m trying to say, and you’ll get a lot of it. If you should subject yourself to reading it over again, you’ll have a much better idea of what I’m saying right from the start, but you may pick up more details or come to a better understanding the second time around. And the third. And the—please why would anyone read my entries over and over again?

Now as I’m going through this process of understanding and applying the biblical content, the conclusions of two thousand years or so of Christian thought are going to play a role. Suppose that I came across John 10:30, “I and the Father are one,” I could not read that verse apart from the model of the Trinity as it was developed in connection with the Council of Nicaea. Nor would it make any sense for me to do otherwise. I neither can nor should ignore theology as it was formulated in earlier times, even when I might disagree with it. The International Society of Christian Apologetics, in its statement of faith, appeals to the Nicene, Chalcedonian, and Athanasian Creeds, but specifically limits their applicability: “For their clarification of the doctrine of the Trinity.”

The historical aspect of the cultural filter keeps us (or should keep us) from creating theological monstrosities. Still, there are too many times when the filter takes over and determines the content. For example, over the last forty years or so, there has been an enormous rise in the interest in and promotion of Christian philosophical theology. By and large coming from the methodology of English-language analytical philosophy, Christian doctrines have been clarified, undermined, redefined, defended, promoted, and rejected. And, let me hasten to add, that discussion is a good thing overall. Unfortunately, under the hands of some philosophers who either have had no training in theology, or did not make use of it, the Christian theology of twenty centuries is being rewritten by an uninformed analysis covering twenty pages. I don’t want to go into details here because doing so would turn us too far off-topic. Yes, even I have limits. Well, okay, I'll allow myself to emote about some of the scary things I can think of at the moment. 

  • Really, can one provide a helpful analysis of the relationship between the humanity and deity of Jesus without even knowing about the definition of Chalcedon and its teaching of one person with two natures?
  • Is there any excuse for discussing the doctrine of the virgin birth in terms of God “inseminating” Mary?
  • Should one be admired when one dismisses the doctrine of human fallenness with a single cynical declaration?

Agree or disagree with any particular doctrine; I, for one, will not take you seriously if you are unfamiliar with two thousand years of discussion on it and do not interact with it in an informed manner [References—perhaps—by way of personal inquiries]. And, ultimately, writers who do not give priority to the Bible over their own philosophical creativity cannot truly be classified as Protestants in my sense of the term, regardless of what their ecclesiastical affiliations may be. On the whole, Catholic philosophy has maintained more of the historical connections and, at a minimum, has given us subject matter to debate, rather than picking apart straw persons.

Furthermore, I can insist that the Bible is not an opaque book, at least not if you study it seriously and openly. Doing so includes taking note of the factors to which one would pay attention in any writings: the historical context of the documents and the most natural approach to the language of various passages. I once attended a philosophical conference at which the speaker “demonstrated” the difficulty in gaining a clear understanding of the Bible by a) showing how certain verses had been misinterpreted by medieval theologians in ways that were humorous to us, and b) pointing to rather insignificant, but again humorous, textual issues that led to further humorous misinterpretations. As you can see, humor ruled. The presentation were, indeed, entertaining, but demonstrated a profound (and unfunny) ignorance of basic methods of Bible study. I think we can take things in the other direction and argue that the fact that we find certain interpretations as wrong and humorous demonstrates that we have an inclination (again, at least minimally) towards a better, more correct, understanding. Furthermore, textual issues have nothing to do with either the truth or our comprehension of biblical content. Textual criticism occurs prior to other tasks because it sets out for us what manuscripts provide the inspired words that we must understand. Please see my collection of entries entitled "Confidence in the New Testament."

I mentioned a little while ago that one can’t (or shouldn’t) build an epistemology starting with what we cannot know (e.g., the dilemma of the Heisenberg principle). Similarly, it is counter-productive to produce a hermeneutic on the basis of what we cannot understand or have a difficult time understanding. If you can understand these words that are coming out of my laptop (indirect allusion to Rush Hour), you can understand the Bible in English translation.

If you are just taking up Bible reading, your capacity to understand it will be limited, of course. That’s presumably why God has given the gift of teaching to his body, the Church (1 Cor. 12:28), and such teaching is nowadays also embodied in books and in historical affirmations. Neither human teachers nor historical declarations are infallible, but they are helps that God is providing so that we can gain greater clarity about what he has revealed.

What I’m trying to convey is this. For people who are used to working under the umbrella of a magisterium, the Protestant idea of building a theology apart from the binding authority of an extra-biblical entity may seem risky and potentially dangerous, and there is no shortage of occasions that could serve as examples if they truly represented the best possible product Protestant theology. However, diligent study of the Bible will convey the content of its teachings to us. Consider that, when I'm talking to a Catholic Christian, despite the inevitable disagreements, we understand each other, share many beliefs, and comprehend many of the same historical  and biblical texts in the same way. One difference is that one of us holds certain extra-biblical texts as authoritative, and the other doesn't. 

The perspicuity of the Bible does not mean that you can engage in a little bit of casual Bible reading and then sit down to write a credible systematic theology. It does mean that if you have the patience and willingness to learn, the Bible will open itself to you. Also, it is true that, when you express what you have learned from the Bible, you can only do so in the terms of your background and current situation. However, you can improve your “current situation” by becoming conversant with the history of theology, which includes writings and declarations made over the course of the last two millennia. In other words, your present culture will affect what you are understanding and conveying, but it does not have to determine the content of what you are expressing.

I think I’ll need one or two more posts on this topic before I shall call it done.

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